Thursday, April 1, 2010

Among the climate "skeptics"

GAGUT as revealed by GOD fundamentally is the understanding of everything that GOD permits us to understand and that hence includes the understanding of how to solve the Arctic Sea ice thinning problem, . . .

-- one of Watt's more coherent commenters

Fascinated by the world changing before our eyes, and fearful of what it portends for the 21st century, in 2009 I became a climate-news junkie. By 2010, my case was advanced. In early February, frustrated with the glacial pace of updates on Real Climate and DotEarth, I ventured into the face-paced, wildly popular climate blog, specializing in denial: Watts Up With That, or as it is known to its friends, WUWT.

I lasted two weeks. Toward the end, Anthony Watts himself, seemingly disappointed in the counterarguments of his highly prolific and overwhelmingly like-minded commentators, took a personal interest in my comments, "replying" using brackets in the body of my messages, deleting comments on flimsy pretexts, and eventually, incensed with my skepticism of his skepticism, unceremoniously announced "into the troll bin with you." But not before I enjoyed a revelatory look at one of the most fast-growing and important subcultures in the broader right-wing populist upwelling that followed the election of Obama: climate change deniers.

The deniers were in full cry when I frequented WUWT; still giddy over the identification of two errors in the IPCC's 3,000-page climate report, and the politically embarrassing and scientifically irrelevant release of the CRU's hacked e-mails. They were running high on the hog on a wave of ignorant, hyperbolic articles in the right-wing press, especially in Britain. Posts lovingly celebrating each article as a news event unto itself were interspersed with pointers to various articles in scientific journals, invariably highlighting only the elements (sometimes as little as a single sentence) which seemed to reinforce denial, while ignoring the body of the paper (which often, whether by generosity or ignorance on Mr. Watt's part, strengthened the case for AGW). This two basic categories were broken up with various "guest posts" by amateur sciencers like Steve Goddard or Willis E, which were never without a generous leavening of mistakes in statistics and misunderstand of basic scientific concepts like external validity and the null hypothesis.

But it is the comment threads that are the true heart of WUWT; each of the 5-10 posts a day attracts dozens to hundreds of comments. Often the "guest" bloggers are among the most prolific commentators. But whatever the subject, the post is little more than an excuse to rehash old grievances, to denounce and condemn, and to celebrate the closeness and emotional support of the denier tribe. Attempt to talk climate science, as the rare dissident attempts, and in short order you can learn volumes about the nature of denial.

Deniers conceive of the obligations of evidence and argument as entirely a one-way street. Scientists have a duty to provide "overwhelming" evidence; any uncertainty disqualifies the science as a basis of action; any erroneous prediction (even if off by a small margin) or confessed inability to predict, completely disqualifies the scientific theory that produced it. In contrast, they held up an ideal of skepticism that it would argue for nothing except the falsehood of other's work, prove nothing, provide evidence for nothing.

So while they exalt people like Copernicus, Galileo and Einstein who challenged the "consensus," they completely ignored the method by which the challenge was carried out: by advancing an alternative hypothesis which better accounted for the facts. The climate "skeptics" approach to falsifying AGW is a carbon copy of the "rapid response" model of political campaigning; allege falsehoods, presume corruption, attack any detail that can be alleged to be false as (further) evidence that the other side is dishonest or at least unforgivably sloppy. It's as if (to accept their analogy) Einstein overturned Newton not with mathematics and close argument, but by denouncing inertia as a leftist plot to advance a world socialist state.

That they should produce such a hypothesis, or, having produced it, that it should be subject to the same kinds of tests they apply to others, drives "skeptics" nuts.

"Skeptical science" a pro-science global warming blog, has it half right: they identify the defining characteristic of the deniers as the refusal to look at the whole picture. They will instead focus in on one error or uncertainty, and never hold themselves responsible for looking at the body of the evidence. If one paper taken by itself cast doubt on some aspect of climate change, while twenty papers provide further empirical confirmation of it, they have no qualms about crowing over the single study and completely refusing to engage with all the others.

But they also, I found, refuse to focus on individual problems, instead holding in reserve a mass of objections and suspicions which constitute their "exit strategy" when an argument is hopelessly lost.

To that end, they rarely will consent to consider in isolation the basic principles of the theory of AGW:

1. The world is warming
2. The primary cause of that warming is anthropogenic GHGs, especially carbon dioxide

One might thing that self-identified "skeptics" could not possibly avoid addressing these basic points. But they do. To accomplish it, they use various weasel words that let them, under pressure "explode" the debate to include a vast number of related ideas, all of which they reject:

You haven't proven runaway catastrophic global warming.

Words like runaway and catastrophic are not just ways of erecting straw man arguments; they are a way to evade ever having to accept reality as to plain vanilla global warming.

Talking to deniers, you realize how much scientific thought depends on a kind of intellectual integrity that will hash out a single point in a complex argument, come to agreement, and remember that agreement going forward. Deniers eschew this, and so conversations with them become maddeningly circular: show them the world is warming, and they demand you proven humans are the cause; some them humans are the cause, and they demand you show that warming will be detrimental; show them it will be detrimental, and they will revert to "You haven't proven to me that it is happening."

Deniers have no intellectual space in which their concerns can be addressed one at a time; and since they uncritically embrace and collect every "skeptical" argument they come across (remember; it's the "believers" job to prove the arguments false, not their to examine them critically) they have dozens of them. No one can address them all at one go; and if you try and address a few key arguments, invariably they will claim "it doesn't matter" and reel off a few more. The next time you talk to them, they won't remember the solid evidence produced that CO2 causes warming and the increase in CO2 is caused by burning fossil fuels; they will only remember that you failed to persuade them.
It is a near-perfect defense mechanism; the first article of faith is that everything must be proven to them to their satisfaction; by refusing to focus on one thing at a time and come to an agreement, rather (like a politician) immediately sliding over to their next talking point, they make the effort to "persuade" them a labor of Sisyphus.
Climate deniers have a rage and paranoia that is social in origin but autocatalysing. Imagine you are a climate skeptic. It is perfectly clear to you that humans don't affect the climate; the idea is absurd. Al Gore comes out with that movie. You're angry! How dare he! Nature and Science publish articles on global warming – and what is worse, they aren't even arguing for global warming, they assert it as an established fact. Seen through the lens of your confirmation bias, this is not evidence that the science of AGW is clear and the evidence overwhelming; it's evidence that debate is being suppressed; that skeptics like you are being silenced.

WUWT is thick with denunciations of the New York Times, the Guardian, Scientific American, NASA, the Nobel committee and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Not all at the same time, of course; the list of organizations that accept the reality of AGW is so long and so illustrious it might give the most tone-deaf denier pause. But over and over again, the formula recurs, with only the names changing: Organization X is so obviously corrupt, so desperate to deny the truth; their latest statement/article/scientific study/Nobel prize is no more than the pathetic death rattle of the AGW conspiracy.

The attitude of deniers to the hypothesis of a pro-AGW "conspiracy" is complex, and navigates between the Scylla of absurdity and the Charybdis of the need to ignore evidence. The less sophisticated deniers will unembarrassedly posit a vast conspiracy of the scientific and political elites all over the world to suppress the truth about "global warming." Those with a little more savvy recognize how stupid this sounds; but the more knowledge they have, the more deniers realize that there are large amounts of evidence supporting global warming which it is difficult to deal with without invoking a conspiracy. Probably the most deft approach is to posit, not a conspiracy, but a vast failure of scientific self-correction; an unplanned effect of peer pressure and political expediency determining what science gets funded and published, and pushing weak-willed climate scientists to genuflect before the theory of AGW whether they believe in it or not.

While it addresses the two big problems with anti-AGW conspiracy theory, the "peer pressure" approach is not wildly popular. It is an article of faith among the lay deniers that people like Al Gore and Michael Mann are not merely misguided, but evil; that they and other "alarmists" self-consciously deceive in order to profit from "greening."

This pushes the skeptical community back towards the silliness of the conspiracy model; but they will not part with their villains, who are critical to the movement's persecution complex.

Another element of denial that is difficult to explain rationally, and pushes them towards tinfoil-hat thinking, is their belief that the theory of AGW is not just false, but clearly and obviously false; anyone can see it is grossly defective. Again, rationally speaking, a much better tack to take would be that climate theory is extremely complex and difficult, and people have come to mistaken conclusions about it. It is easy to see how this would dovetail with the peer pressure theory. But, again, the movement seems to derive some of its emotional charge from its emperor-has-no-clothes meme; as a fundamentally political approach, denial likes to offer its believers a clear, black and white distinction: we are right and they are wrong. Open the door to complexity, and you have the very problem that is crippling legitimate scientists' ability to respond to the slanderous attacks on them and their work: "Given the evidence in hand, we are likely correct, and the alternative position is less likely to be correct" is lousy polemic. Deniers flirt with reason and argument, but in their discussions among themselves, they fall back on tribal identification, and in claiming that they are obviously correct, beyond dispute, they are really appealing to their audience's gut feeling that those nasty leftists are up to no good.

" What is WUWT other than a support group for stupid?"

-- Ray Ladbury

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant analysis of the denier ideology.

    It compliments this one by the late Johnny Rook

    "Your adversary will deny the facts, cherry pick the scientific evidence for bits of data that, taken out of context, support his/her denialist view, or drag out long-debunked counter-arguments in the hope that they are unfamiliar to you and that you will not be able to refute them. If you succeed in countering all of his arguments he will most likely reword them and start all over again."

    "The answer is simply that you are operating off of a mistaken premise. You think that the question of whether or not climate change is real and has an anthropogenic (human) cause is a question to be answered by application of an open mind, research, facts, and critical thinking. Isn't that how scientists approach these problems? They're skeptical and critique each others work, discarding ideas which fail to stand up to scrutiny by their colleagues and replacing them with ones that better describe the facts."

    "Denialists, however, have no interest in facts except as weapons in an ideological struggle. They don't even care if 'facts' are correct or not, since their intention is not to establish that something is true or false, but rather to win a battle in an ideological war."

    "I'm not talking about people who are skeptical only because they are uninformed about the issue. Nor, am I talking about scientists who disagree with other scientists over the details of global warming."

    "For conservative/libertarian ideologues who compose the overwhelming majority of denialists, Climaticide is just such a case. If a conservative/libertarian ideologue were to accept global warming as real then he/she would be forced to admit that the problem is so big and so complex that government action is required to deal with it. But for an conservative/libertarian ideologue that is impossible because he/she believes that government is the cause of ALL problems and that the solution to all problems is 'freedom'."

    "Denialists frequently make this attitude explicit when they accuse the 'liberals' concerned about climate change of having invented it as an excuse to expand government. The latest version of this tactic that I've encountered is that none of the science in support of global warming need be taken seriously because it is the product of government-paid scientists who are only doing their bureaucratic masters' bidding, apparently forgetting that the current "masters" are themselves Climaticide denialists." (Bush was President when he wrote this)

    "Government science is corrupt science because it's government science. "Scientists" in the pay of the oil and gas industries on the other hand are free of this corruption because they are doing science for the capitalist heroes who defend our "freedom".